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Scott Larson

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Terror in the cinema II

Last week we took at look at how (mainly) American movies had handled the theme of terrorism over the past couple of decades. To sum up, for most of that time terrorists have served mainly as exciting villains for escapist action/adventure flicks. A couple of movies have used terrorists to satirize the way the corporate-owned mass media operate. And a couple have actually attempted to be somewhat thought-provoking and maybe a little political. So, how have European filmmakers handled the topic?

First, let us define what we (I) mean by “European films.” For purposes of this discussion, I choose to define “European films” as films from Europe that 1) I personally have actually seen myself and 2) I personally can remember having seen. That nicely limits us (me) to a manageable number of films.

As you might expect, most of the films dealing with terrorists or terrorism come from countries (as defined above) that have experienced a serious terrorism problem. These would include Italy and Germany, countries which saw the rise of homegrown terrorists during the 1970s, like the Red Brigades and the Bader-Meinhoff Gang, respectively. Ireland and Great Britain have produced several movies featuring the Irish Republican Army but, in the Irish films at least, the IRA isn’t necessarily portrayed as a classic terrorist organization. In films set in Northern Ireland, it is generally portrayed as a local institution. This has been the case from 1935’s The Informer to 1947’s Odd Man Out to 1984’s Cal to 1992’s The Crying game and 1997’s The Boxer and even this year’s The Mighty Celt. A notable exception among Irish filmmakers is Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father. In that fact-based movie IRA terrorists blow up an English pub. We never find out anything, however, about the terrorists themselves. The movie is concerned with the innocent people who are swept up by the British police and wrongly imprisoned for the crime. A similar approach was taken by English filmmaker Ken Loach in his 1990 film Hidden Agenda, in which Amnesty International investigators Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif uncover rotten corruption in the Ulster security forces.

At least a couple Irish and/or British movies have crime bosses getting killed by the IRA after a misunderstanding. That was the fate of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday and of Brendan Gleeson in The General. While we are on the topic of the IRA, it is worth noting that the Provos have occasionally shown up as the villains or anti-heroes in mainstream American and UK films. Examples that come to mind are 1975’s Hennessy, in which Rod Steiger goes unhinged after a personal tragedy and plots to blow up Parliament during the queen’s speech; 1992’s Patriot Games, in which Harrison Ford (as Jack Ryan) and his family are menaced by an IRA splinter group led by Sean Bean; and 1994’s Blown Away, in which Tommy Lee Jones plays an escaped IRA prisoner bent on revenge on former comrade Jeff Bridges, who has not only left the IRA but also started a new life in Boston and developed a completely American (and not even a Boston one) accent.

One British-produced movie in particular rates a mention, given the topic under discussion. Filmed in Norway and released in 1975, it starred Sean Connery and Ian McShane and dealt with a plane hijacking. Its title was simply The Terrorists.

If movies about the IRA from the British Isles have mined their audience’s conflicted feelings about nationalism, films from continental Europe have tended to prey on their viewers’ attitudes about ideology and society. Italian films, in particular, tend to preoccupy themselves with the emotional effect of life in an age of terrorism. In 1977’s In the Name of the Pope King, the late Nino Manfredi played a 19th century Vatican magistrate whose son is suspected of terrorism. In his 1981 film Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, Bernardo Bertolucci made some kind of comment on modern society and family with the story of Ugo Tognazzi, as the owner of a cheese factory, whose son (who may or may not be complicit in the plot) is held for ransom by left-wing terrorists. Four years later, his brother Giuseppe made a movie, Secrets Secrets, that told of a terrorist assassination of a judge that goes wrong. The film had little to say about terrorism, but it had an interesting non-chronological structure. Marco Bellochio’s 1986 film Devil in the Flesh employed the idea of terrorism mainly as a device for a psychological exploration. The protagonist’s father has been killed by terrorists, and her fiancé is a terrorist, albeit a repented one, who is testifying in court against his comrades. Somewhere along the way she acquires a teenage lover. Those of us who remember this movie at all tend to forget the terrorism theme entirely but remember an incredibly graphic sex scene. The sex-and-terrorism connection was picked up in 1987 by Lina Wertmuller in comedy with one of her typically pithy titles, Summer Night, with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil. Wertmuller regular Mariangela Melato starred as a wealthy business titan who, fed up with the terrorism problem, decides to turn the tables and kidnap a terrorist herself. The “twist,” of course, comes when this scion of the privileged class and her captive champion of the proletariat find that they have the hots for each other, making this essentially a traditional opposites-attract rom com. Except with a lot more sweaty kinks than, say, It Happened One Night.

While Italian flicks tend to use the terrorism theme as pretext to explore emotions, German movies seem more interested in how terrorism provides governments with a rationale for repression. Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s 1975 film, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, told the story of how a woman is persecuted after getting involved with a man who, unbeknownst to her, turns out to be a terrorist. (There was an American TV remake nine years later, starring Marlo Thomas!) Three years later, Reinhard Hauff pursued a similar theme in Knife in the Head, in which Bruno Ganz is framed as some kind of radical after he is innocently caught in a police/terrorist crossfire. Rainier Werner Fassbinder picked up the theme the following year in his dark comedy, The Third Generation. Von Trotta returned to the terrorism theme for her 1982 film, Marianne and Juliane, which told of two sisters working for change, one within the system as a feminist editor, the other as a terrorist. A more detached view of terrorism in 20th century Germany was provided by Swiss director Markus Imhoof’s 1986 movie, The Journey. Based on a true story, it tells of a man who rejects the Nazi nostalgia of his father and embraces radical politics, eventually drawing the line at terrorism.

Interestingly, I have had trouble finding any examples of terrorism as a plot device in films from Spain, another country that has had a major terrorism problem. The best I have been able to come up with is a subplot to Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 movie Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, that has a woman inadvertently lets Shiite(?) terrorists use her apartment to stage a hijacking.

In the end, most of the examples of movies dealing with terrorism as a theme are pretty dated and definitely pre-9/11. There is one, out of the Middle East, however, that is extremely current and thought-provoking. If you have been paying any attention at all to this web site for the past couple of months, then you probably already know the one I mean. It bears further discussion, which I will endeavor to provide next time.

-S.L., 1 September 2005

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